The Afghan government says it has reclaimed authority over the southern town of Marjah, where NATO and Afghan forces are battling remaining Taliban militants. But officials say both the military operation and fight to win over the locals' confidence is far from over.
Afghanistan's black, red and green-striped flag flies over what once was a major Taliban stronghold in the country's southern Helmand province.
Hundreds of locals gathered in the town of Marjah to watch Afghan Army officers and provincial officials raise the national flag.
The commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, says the estimated 30-day operation to root out Taliban militants is not quite halfway over. But he says there have been some significant gains.
"I think we are feeling pretty good about the control of the populated areas, the infrastructure," said Nicholson. "There is still some fighting to do potentially in some areas we have not got into. But right now, I am confident that the critical areas in Marjah are under Afghan government control," he said.
Nicholson says coalition forces are focused on about 400-square kilometers.
"You have to choose carefully where you are going to go and stay, and I think we are doing that," he added.
The assault on Marjah, consisting of 15,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops, is the largest joint military operation in Afghanistan since the start of the war eight years ago.
In recent days, officials have reported fewer clashes in the area. There also have been reports that residents who fled the conflict now are returning to their homes. Officials say the next step in the assault is to restore government services.
NATO commanders say winning the trust of the local Afghan population is crucial to the southern offensive's success. But there still have been instances of civilian deaths, despite stricter rules governing how coalition forces can engage militants.